What’s in a limit? capital, crisis and climate change

It’s no coincidence that talking about the G8 should lead directly to talking about climate change. For movements, it represents the possible emergence of a new focus, as shown by the buzz in public opinion and events such as this year’s climate camp in the UK which, it seems, will be repeated in Germany, the US, Sweden and elsewhere in 2008. From the perspective of governance and capital, it is becoming a key element in the management of the global system, both at the level of decision-making and of political legitimation, not to mention new market niches. In the space between movements and governance, it exemplifies the ambiguity and complexity of the question of ‘winning’. If the whole emphasis of environmental activism over the last few years has been on raising awareness about the threat of climate change, then 2007 must be seen as the year when ‘we won’. The issue is now everywhere, and everyone, politicians and big companies included, talk about it.

Yet it is precisely this victory that could prove to be a defeat. Global concern about climate change must be given a new form if it is to actually affect the state of things (that is, radically reduce carbon dioxide emissions in a short time-frame). In part this means constructing a new story, one that can stop the issue being turned into a huge profit-making opportunity for capital. Without this, it’s easy to see climate change being used to unleash a new regime of austerity on the governed, and to excuse measures like increased ‘security’ and border controls as geopolitical tensions rise. But if the fight is to be more than a public opinion dispute – one where we’re always on the back foot – then it has to also take place at the level of production and social reproduction.

It’s common to think of climate change as a technical-environmental problem that calls for a technical-environmental solution: the problem is too much carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, so the solution is to reduce these emissions to ‘acceptable’ levels via technological innovation, government legislation and the public ‘doing their bit’. The difficulty with this is twofold. First, almost everything we do is bound-up with fossil fuel use and the resulting CO2 emissions: from travelling to work to phoning-in sick so we can watch DVDs. Second, the cuts required (some 60–90% before 2050) are so large they require sweeping changes, and cannot be solved simply by the world’s environment ministries getting together.

An alternative way to understand climate change is in terms of metabolism. The Earth’s metabolism, its ability to process carbon, runs at a slower speed than the metabolism of contemporary capitalism. The economy is on a collision course with the biosphere. Here we are talking about a limit to the expansion of capital and a possible crisis of accumulation.

For capital, limits are peculiar. Capital has an internal dynamic of expansion which must be satisfied, so limits must be ignored, subverted, side-stepped, or otherwise overcome. And the secret of capital’s longevity lies precisely in its ability to use limits and the crises they engender as a launch-pad for a new round of accumulation and expansion. A good example of this dynamism is the emergence of the so-called Keynesian/Fordist phase of capitalism. The high levels of organisation of the industrial working class in the first half of the 20th century – not only the Russian Revolution but intense struggle worldwide – appeared as a limit to the expansion of capitalism, threatening not only to halt accumulation but to destroy the system once and for all. The welfare state was a direct result of these struggles, but it was also a way of neutralising this threat. And capital’s greatest feat was to strike a productivity deal which actually transformed this limit into the engine of a new phase of capitalist growth.

What does an analysis of the generic response of capitalism to limit-crises tell us about likely responses to climate change? There’s no doubt that climate change is a limit which presents as many opportunities as dangers to capital. Many are jumping at the chance to take this new limit, this potential crisis, and turn it into a new motor for accumulation. Look at the clamour for buying and selling rights to emit carbon: carbon credits, carbon offsets, Tradable Emissions Quotas, carbon futures. And then there’s green consumerism: green cars, solar panels, green home make-overs. Could climate change inject new dynamism into the global economy? Are we looking at a new, ‘green’ phase of capitalism, where the atmosphere is opened up like cyberspace was in the ’90s? It’s possible. And it’s also obvious that it’s unlikely to cut carbon emissions radically!

A capitalist solution will look, well, like capitalism. Just as the effects of climate change are uneven, having a far more devastating effect on the poor – look at the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or the east Asian tsunami on Aceh – so almost all the current crop of solutions will also work to reinforce existing hierarchies. Most ‘green’ taxes will increase the price of basic goods and services, limiting mobility and access to food and heating. Access to travel, food and comfort all tied in to possession of money? No news there, of course: just the rules of the game as we know it. Except now they will be justified on the grounds that they’re necessary in order to save the planet. Expect ‘green capitalism’ to be a new regime of austerity and discipline, imposed on the poor more than on the rich in the name of the ‘greater good’.

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